When Innovate Long Island last checked in on the goings on at Stony Brook University’s Business Incubator at Calverton, former Town of Riverhead Community Development Agency Executive Director Chris Kempner had just taken the reins, succeeding interim Director Jeffrey Saelens, who’d replaced longtime leader Monique Gablenz. Flash forward a few years, and the merry-go-round has stopped on exactly the right administrator: Yvonne Schultz became the building manager for the incubator (now officially the Food Business Incubator at Calverton ) in November 2018 and has led the facility through a period of unprecedented growth, up to and definitely including the pandemic, during which the number of companies based inside the roughly 24,000-square-foot incubator has more than tripled. Schultz, a former incubator client herself, gets it – food businesses are like no other, she says, with unique connections to customers and communities, and in an era of change, such connections speak volumes. So, with the pandemic slowly waning, what comes next? The manager has some good ideas about that, too.
Cleaning up: In the 1980s, I worked for the Eaton Corp. and Hazeltine (Corp.), working on the B1 bomber. I was 26 years old when I got laid off, and I decided I wanted to go into business for myself, so I started a housecleaning business. I did pretty well – I had about 30 accounts and four employees. Then I went into catering and hosting parties at people’s houses, and I did both of those jobs for about 17 years.
Hungry for success: I did a lot of food prep and light cooking. But I always had a passion for baking. So, in 2004, I opened Shining Star Bakery in Center Moriches.
Lots to learn: I went into the business blind – not knowing anything, but I did have that passion, and I wound up running the business for eight years. Due to a divorce, I had to close, and when I closed the shop, I tried to find myself.
Lots to teach: One of the things I did in my bakery was work with Maryhaven (Center of Hope) and the Independent Group Living Home, making dinners and gingerbread houses and decorating cakes, just giving back to the community. Somebody said, “Why don’t you go to work in the schools and work with autistic kids?” So, I took a job with the Eastport-South Manor Central School District working with kids with special needs.
Caring café: I wound up opening a small café in the district that raised money for special-needs kids through baking. We didn’t set any prices – the staff would come down and get whatever and make donations. It was interesting, working with the children and teaching them life skills, and the money paid for lunch and field trips. One kid would earn a cashew every 15 minutes, so eventually we could buy him a bag of cashews and not pass that cost onto the schools.
Welcome to Calverton: I realized I could be making more money with the baking, so I launched Herbie’s Crumb Cake in 2014 at the Calverton Incubator. I was amazed by the facility and what it had to offer to help you grow your business. When I started, in five hours, I made nine sheets of cake. When I left six years later, I was making 60 sheets of cake (in five hours) and hiring employees. It taught me all about manufacturing and scaling up.
Stepping up: In 2018, when I learned about the (director) job here, people came up to me and said, “You should apply, you’re really good at what you do.” I thought it was a really good opportunity – I thought there was a lot here for companies starting in the food industry, and there could be a lot more.
Really cooking: The incubator used to be part laboratory space, until it went to all food. Now we have four kitchens: a baking kitchen, a gluten-free kitchen and what we call Process 1 and 2 kitchens, each with a 40-quart kettle, a 40-quart grazing pan, a steamer and a six-burner stovetop with a convection oven.
Thick skin: One of the things I always pitch to new companies is to be ready for change and criticism. Those two entities are positive. When you get to that point, that’s when you have to sit down and evaluate your business and take it to the next level.
Wrap it up: Besides a good product, the most important ingredient (in bringing a food product to market) is packaging. How you present it. That’s what Calverton is all about – testing the waters.
COVID crunch: When COVID hit, we had 20 companies here. We are currently at 72 companies. We have companies from Westchester, Queens, the Bronx … they like the program, they like the cleanliness, they like the support they get from the university.
Keep it clean: Our facility is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The companies have to make reservations. There are always some issues with cleanups, but we have vendors that clean for us on an everyday business and everybody is pretty responsible for their own space, following the rules and guidelines.
Some assembly required: One of the requirements companies have to meet is investing in their own assets – mops, brooms, tables, shelving, and if you really want to invest, maybe refrigeration or some kind of automated equipment. You have to constantly grow your wholesale accounts and figure out what kind of equipment you need to produce your product more efficiently. Do you continue to do it manually, or do you buy that cookie machine? When I bought my bakery, I went in blind, and two months later I needed an oven, then I needed this, then that. It was very challenging. Here, you invest in your assets and build your customers as you march through, so when you leave here your assets are paid for and you can move into the next phase.
Talk it up: Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a little more success graduating companies, especially with all these new food-and-beverage companies here and communicating with each other – collaborating, teaching each other about purchasing and labeling.
Build it up: We’re looking now at fixing up the infrastructure a bit. With the amount of growth we’ve experienced, we’re looking at our electric systems, with all of the refrigeration and freezers people are installing in their rooms.
Meanwhile, back on the farm: We’re also planning a farmer’s market for next spring on the property here. I was thinking about things we could be doing to help expose these businesses, so I inquired and it got approved really quickly – somebody up above must love me. We’re hoping to launch in March, as soon as the weather breaks.
Sweet success: One company that has succeeded is Plant Provisions, which came in around May 2020 and has already gone out to co-packing. He makes plant-based cold cuts and still does product testing here and uses refrigeration here, but he’s co-packing in Chicago. Another company doing well is The Hampton Grocer, which also started during the pandemic, collecting food from other companies and delivering door-to-door. Now she’s growing her business tremendously selling homemade granola made from her mother-in-law’s recipe – great granola, I have to tell you.
Let them sell cake: When I was here with Herbie’s Crumb Cake, I had an opportunity to go into Costco, but I turned it down. I also had a deal with Best Markets, but I really wanted to be the next Girl Scout Cookies, with crumb cakes. Let’s say you’re a coach on a baseball team and you want to take the team to Cooperstown – so, you sell my crumb cakes for $12, and you get $5 from each sale.
Oh, the places you’ll go: What’s nice about the incubator is you’re able to take your company places you’d never think of going before. And that’s what I like most about this place – we’re always thinking outside the box and being inventive.
Interview by Gregory Zeller, Innovate LI , October 20, 2021